Last night, on the twenty-fifth floor of a swanky hotel right beside Madison Square Garden, the travelling Irish media were afforded some time with Michael Conlan.
In the final stages of a comfortable weight cut, the Belfast featherweight sat with Andy Watters from the Irish News, Dave Mohan from Belfast Media Group, and Irish-Boxing.com to discuss his big rematch tomorrow night with Vladimir Nikitin.
As we roll swiftly towards the end of the decade, the usual end-of-year lists and debates are even bigger.
Who was the sportsperson of the 2010s? Katie Taylor? Rory McIlroy? Maybe the man sat across from us at the table last night?
The ‘moment’ of the 2010s though is perhaps a clearer ‘win’ for Conlan.
Tuesday August 16th, the Riocentro Pavilion 6, Olympic bantamweight quarter-final, Michael John Conlan v Vladimir Olegovich Nikitin, a moment etched in infamy.
Every single sports publication in Ireland will verify, no single day throughout the decade was bigger in terms of readers and engagement. A medal had been wrongfully denied, a dream had been taken, a nation was infuriated.
Beyond our small isle, the reverberations were – and still are – being felt.
Now though, featherweight Conlan has become detached.
He doesn’t ‘hate’ Nikitin, far from it.
The henchman-looking character from Syktyvkar [Russia’s 81st biggest city, if you were wondering], was always just a pawn.
The AIBA, the Russian government, and whatever other powers-that-be were what drew Conlan’s ire and now, 48 hours from fight night, the Falls Road man just wants to close the book.
It’s been 40 months since they fought in Rio, Nikitin was signed by Top Rank in 2018 to build this clash, they were meant to meet at the Féile in August only for the Russian to pull out. It’s been a long time, it’s just another fight – he promises.
“I’ve no emotional attachment to it,” says Conlan who is likely two wins away from a world title shot.
“That’s what it is, putting it to bed and moving on. I don’t want to hear about it no more and I don’t think anyone who has heard about it wants to hear it no more because it’s all you hear.”
“It’s straight business. Who knows when I’m in there though, things just tend to happen. My mindset going in is to have a rude, kind of cocky mentality and box his ears off and if I see the opportunity to stop him and take him out I will.”
Even in the six months since the press conference for their ill-fated rematch in Belfast, Conlan’s stance has softened.
Then, the chat was ‘knockout’, now it’s about just getting through and moving on.
“This win is just as important as the next win and the win previous to it,” explained the WBO #1, WBA #3, IBF #9, and WBC #14-ranked 126lber.
“Every win is more important than the last, in boxing you have to keep winning because it’s like snakes and ladders – once you lose you’re right back to the bottom.”
“I need to win and when I do I’ll think: ‘thank God I’ve won and it’s done’. I’ll be relieved that we don’t have to talk about it no more.”
From a purely ‘boxing’ point of view, this fight is odd.
Nikitin has fought just three times as a pro and has been wholly unimpressive. Indeed, many have dismissed the fight, drawing unfavourable comparisons to rival and new WBO champ Shakur Stevenson.
Hammy as it may be to some, though, the ‘narrative’ cannot be denied.
People, casual boxing fans, care about seeing this fight, they want to see ‘vengeance’.
A 1/14 prohibitive favourite, many expect a public beating from Conlan – an outpouring of anger, the righting of a wrong, a therapeutic release.
As those close to him know, this isn’t the case for the 28-year-old who approaches the clash with a clinical mind.
Conlan outlined how “I think the general public are underestimating him and, maybe, the boxing media are underestimating him because he hasn’t performed to his level yet as a professional – but I’m not underestimating him and, really, what people say doesn’t matter.”
“What matters is what happens on Saturday night and I’m ready for it. I just have to go back to what I’ve done in training, no stone has been left unturned.”
“I know I’m expected to win but I know that I’ve lost to this guy twice so I’m not thinking it is a foregone conclusion – that has given me more focus and helped me build confidence.”
“I think he’s going to be better than what we’ve seen from him as a professional because this is his World title fight, this is his big one, this is his main fight probably ever. I’m expecting it to be the best Vladimir Nikitin we’ve ever seen.”
“Whether he tries to box or whether he tries to come in close and try take my head off, I’m ready for anything. Because of what I’ve worked on in training and in the sparring that I’ve had, I’m very happy with whatever way it flows.”
“I’m just looking forward to going in there, getting the victory, and looking good doing so. I’m just really happy, I’m really confident because I know the work I put in in training camp. Everything I’ve done has been fantastic and I’ve no doubts, no fear, no negative feelings.”
Conlan, though, is too smart not to target Nikitin’s inexperience.
Never scheduled beyond six rounds, the Komi 29-year-old will surely find the going tough if the fight goes past 18 minutes.
“It’s a box that I’ve ticked and he hasn’t,” acknowledged Conlan.
“It’s said he has a big engine but until, in an actual fight, you do the distance, you don’t know if you can or not, there’s doubt in your head.”
“That’s something I’ll use to my advantage in the fight, when he’s trying to take a break I’ll push him a bit, look to deteriorate him more and consume his energy more. It’s a good advantage I have going into the fight.”
Indeed, Conlan has been preparing for a gruelling fight with fighters that are better pros than Nikitin.
— Michael Conlan (@mickconlan11) November 15, 2019
The Falls Road feather described how “it was Kiko Martinez and Jose Gonzalez I’ve been sparring, two very good sparring partners, both very similar in size and stature to Nikitin, even the relentlessness of both of them, how they box – and how we think he could box, coming forward.”
“Jose did a bit of boxing at times too so that box is ticked. I had great sparring with Kiko, I was very, very happy. It was really good sparring, I was just really happy with how it went, I don’t need to say anything else.”
The 2015 World Amateur champion is in good spirits.
New York is a home from home ever since his ground-breaking headline debut on St Patrick’s Day 2017.
That night came to the ring, Conor McGregor in tow, with an Irish-themed version of Apollo Creed’s ‘Living in America’ walk from Rocky 4.
— Michael Conlan (@mickconlan11) March 21, 2017
This time round, at the press conference, it was Balboa himself, but it’s more than just an outfit.
— Top Rank Boxing (@trboxing) December 11, 2019
“In all seriousness,” Conlan laughs, “I have took inspiration from Rocky 4 in this.”
“He was the underdog going into [the Ivan Drago fight], I’ve approached this like an underdog, I’m fighting someone whose beaten me twice. I’m fighting around Christmastime, Rocky fought in Russia on Christmas”, he adds before letting his inner nerd momentarily come to the surface.
“And then he says, after, when he wins, he tells his kid he should be sleeping right now but ‘Merry Christmas, kid’, which is actually wrong because Philadelphia is eight hours behind Moscow, it would have been in the middle of the day!”
Staying on the Rocky thought, Conlan points to his camp.
Leafy London may be a world away from snowy Siberia, but sacrifice is sacrifice.
“You see how hard he worked in it and I feel that I’ve done that in this training camp.”
“I’ve kept myself away from my family, I’ve kept myself away from everything, and trained as hard as I possibly could. To be honest, it wasn’t hard, I didn’t feel it was hard in terms of being away from everybody, in terms of sacrifices because I know what it takes and I know what I have to do.”
Conlan checks himself, it is hard. Partner Shauna is at home with Luisne, 4, and 16-month-old Mick Jr.
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“To be honest, I think [Luisne] acts up a bit when I’m away. It’s hard for her, she gets fed up. I think maybe she feels emotionally at times but doesn’t know how to explain it.”
“Me not being there probably does affect things but it’s a short career and I have to do it now, while I can, before I get to the stage where I can’t do it any more.”
“I’m missing my her big time and the little man big time. I’m missing him growing and doing things. You notice big changes when you’ve been away for 14 weeks – I think I’ve only been home three or four times in that cycle.”
“It was tough but you Facetime them. We’re very lucky nowadays to have the likes of Facetime. Five years ago, even, you wouldn’t have that.”
“I’ll go home on Sunday and have Christmas, about a month at home. I’ll probably still do a little bit of training, tick over. Nothing serious, just running, no punching, just to keep in shape because Christmas is a happy time and I eat an awful lot of food.”
We circle back around to the fight and away from talk of food.
Conlan, who weighed in today at 125.75lbs, is hungry and not just for a meal.
With nothing else definitively on the radar – St Patrick’s Day 2020 at The Garden and the 2020 Féile both being too far away to consider – there is a single-mindedness which he is rarely afforded.
“I’m excited, I really am. It’s the best I’ve felt in my whole pro career, maybe even better than in my amateur career because of the way I have focussed on one person [Nikitin] and nothing else – not what’s happening after or what could happen next year.”
“What’s in front of me is the main thing I’ve focussed on and it’s the first time in my whole pro career that I’ve been able to do that because so far I’ve always known what my next fight was. In my second fight in Chicago I had a terrible fight, a terrible performance.”
“I got the win, I got a stoppage but I got up the next morning at six in the morning and went out running because I was that pissed off with my performance. I was thinking: ‘that was terrible’. I was really embarrassed but my focus wasn’t on that fight because I had already been told I couldn’t get cut or anything because I was fighting on the Pacquaio card five weeks later.”
“That’s been the way. When I boxed in the big Garden last year I was already told I would be fighting in Belfast so I couldn’t risk getting any cuts. But this one, when I know I won’t be fighting for a good while after, the focus has been on this and not what comes next.”
Even without paying attention to the opportunities on the horizon and the snakes and ladders effect that one loss could have, Conlan still finds himself centre-stage tomorrow.
Third from the top of the bill, opening the telecast following the prestigious Heisman Trophy presentation for College Football, Conlan is again responsible for the largest chunk of tickets sold on this bill and will perhaps be fighting in front of his biggest television audience yet.
“With most of my fights, I’ve had that pressure,” he muses.
“The St Patrick’s Day ones and the Falls Park but I’ve always had that pressure. I’ve been able to build that experience of being in these high-pressure situations from day one.”
“A lot of fighters don’t get that until they fight for a world title whereas I have got that my whole career. It’s nothing new but maybe I put myself under more pressure in terms of, I’m not going to lose to this guy again and I’ll make sure of it.”
“It’s not even pressure, I know what I have to do and I need to execute the plan. I feel great, mentally I feel fantastic and physically I’m probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in, everything has just went swimmingly.”
All, at last, has been said, and just one thing is left to be done.